There’s much to savor in Wurmfeld’s insightful and oft-melancholy film about two old friends who’ve maintained said friendship since 1963. That one-half of the pair is playwright-actor-director Sam Shepard while the other, Johnny Dark, is a “hermetic” (in Shepard’s words), New Mexico-based writer, canine enthusiast, and self-archivist currently holding down a job at a Mexican-food deli, merely makes this improbably charming friendship all the more revelatory. It’s a tone poem of a documentary, really, as rich, satisfying, and full of life and death as one of Shepard’s great plays.
Older now, and possibly wiser, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Dark reunite after the former offers to sell his voluminous correspondence to Texas State University, with an eye toward collaborating with his old friend on a book (to be published by UT Press) of reminiscences, photos, and, of course, the pair’s magnificent sprawling letters. (“The Writer’s Road” is an exhibition drawn from those papers that’s currently on display at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State.) Ream upon ream are eventually compiled, with both men reading selected passages and commenting on how unlikely and random it was that they came to be the best of friends in the first place. (Dark caught one of Shepard’s early efforts off-Broadway, spotted him at a deli the next day, and introduced himself. And that, as they say, was that.)
Cannily edited by Austinite Sandra Adair with a spare, lovely score by yet another film-and-music fixture, Graham Reynolds, Shepard & Dark balances near-perfectly on the fine line between familial good will and emotional pathos.
There’s so much good will between the peripatetic playwright and the homebody writer that you could almost think of Wurmfeld’s low-key documentary as a platonic love story. Troubles come and go – Shepard abandons his wife and son for Jessica Lange, then he and Lange split 23 years on, freeing him to begin work on the book with Dark. Dark, too, has more than his share of burdens when his beloved wife Scarlett suffers a brain aneurysm and the whole mixed clan unites to care for the ailing spouse. “I’ve always been an enemy of sentimentality,” Shepard says at one point, but this documentary belies that notion. Craggy but still gruff and chock-full of wry wit, Shepard at times seems to want to trade places with his amiable, pot-smoking pal. There’s tension as the two hole up in Santa Fe to work on the book, but the bottom-line feeling is of two old friends, now two old men, who have found their place in each other’s complicated lives.